T-shirts are affordable, hygienic and convenient. Everyone wears them regardless of cultural background, gender, ethnicity and income. You can wear a T-shirt at work or at home, when doing sports or at a reception. This significant garment contains references to the main features of modernised society: industrialisation, democratisation, the blending of the private and public, urbanisation, standardisation, popular and mass culture, the decline of the class society, globalisation and colonisation, and the fading of the patriarchy
Originally worn as an undergarment, the T-shirt became one of the most widely worn fashion items in the 20th century. It is a cheap and easy means for people and companies to express political, individual and commercial messages. About two billion new T-shirts are sold worldwide each year. In addition, a huge number of second or even third or fourth hand shirts are sold and donated through international recycling markets. A T-shirt without cultural or gender features is freely available to everyone, which is why it can be considered one of the most democratic items of clothing.
The global market for textiles and clothing is several centuries old. As early as the 15th century, textiles with exotic patterns from India spread across different continents and could be found in millions of homes. The textile industry underwent a major breakthrough in the 19th century with the invention of the industrial sewing machine, and the expansion of the American cotton harvest. Uniform-looking garments were now spreading around the world faster than ever before. Today’s T-shirt became common as casual wear in the United States after World War II. The T-shirt was initially used as an under layer of a soldier’s uniform, but in the hot Pacific climate, American soldiers often wore only these. The crowds of veterans returning from the war continued to wear the comfortable shirts in their home country, and so the former undershirt became a casual garment. Around the same time, the T-shirt became common among schoolchildren, who received it from school as sportswear.
The T-shirt gained a central place in the resistance movement in the West in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Anti-war activists, advocates of women’s rights and environmentalists as well as many other movements have skilfully used the T-shirt to make their voices heard. The former underwear became a loudspeaker on the social battlefield, an inseparable part of public space. In its simplicity, the T-shirt was easy to acquire and easy to use to convey a critical message. It has become an integral part of the culture of protest and resistance.
In Soviet Estonia, the T-shirts available were mainly manufactured by the Marat knitwear production company. They were similar to a purebred T-shirt, but not quite with the same cut and, of course, the material was different. Marat created special editions for student work camps, or larger events and celebrations. People also adorned these with their own hand-painted images. In the late 1980s, pirated shirts with Western images were made using screen printing. Although not exactly with a T-shirt cut, the most genuine self-made political shirts were made in 1987 by students with the slogan against phosphorite mining. The flood of Western shirts arrived in Estonia after the restoration of independence, with the opening of borders and the so-called Swedish aid.
T-shirts in the tie-dyeing technique originally popularised by hippies have now become pointless colourful souvenirs that are sold to tourists around the world. Similarly, some T-shirts with rather radical images have gone to the masses and become completely alienated from their original context. The best example here is the portrait of the world-renowned Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, who was a controversial figure, to put it mildly.
Mass production and the associated over-consumption lead to a gloomier aspect we should keep in mind when wearing a T-shirt. About 5.4 trillion litres of water are needed to produce the two billion shirts each year. For comparison: We could make T-shirts from the water in Lake Ülemiste for five years. Between 2009 and 2014 alone, global T-shirt production increased by 24%. Given that there are currently around two and a half billion people living with water scarcity in the world, and that 247 million hours of work have been done this year exploiting child labour alone, the white T-shirt no longer seems very democratic, clean or free.
The international market for recycled clothing has also grown exponentially over the last two decades. As a result, several South African and Asian countries have suspended imports of used clothing. Local African producers and traders simply cannot compete with cheap second-hand clothing in containers from Europe. Secondly, the international clothing market creates a perception among local people that they are part of a glamorous consumer society, but in reality what reaches them is only the out-of-fashion rags and surpluses from the developed world.
Of course, the above does not annul all the good that the T-shirt has brought to the world. In addition to souvenir manufacturers, there are now many activists, designers, groups, and artists who make and sell T-shirts for noble and charitable purposes, look for less toxic and sustainable ways to create them, and use it tactically to spread their message.
Despite the external simplicity, the T-shirt is insidiously complicated. Its importance, function and connotation largely depend on the context of the observation. The purpose of the exhibition Wearing a Hundred Shirts is not to give an overview of the history and development of the T-shirt. Based on the choices of other researchers and collectors, and with some additions from us, we look at the T-shirt as an object of material culture and its manifestations mainly in Estonia. The exhibition includes items that could be said to have acquired a historical value by being admitted to the museum collection, and it is interesting to see how important issues and developments in Estonia’s recent past are outlined on the basis of the selected shirts. Among other things, the exhibition includes T-shirts as Western consumer objects during the late Soviet time and the early years of restored independence; self-made shirts with a political message and campaign shirts of political parties; designer shirts and artworks, as well as a fraction of the flood of worn-out T-shirts that is currently drowning the world.